Alasdair MacIntyre and Richard Rorty’s Lifelong Argument

Alasdair MacIntyre and Richard Rorty’s Lifelong Argument

Liberalism’s Two Sides

Alasdair MacIntyre and Richard Rorty’s lifelong argument.


Fifty years ago, William F. Buckley Jr. vowed not to read another book about liberalism until his mother wrote one. Liberalism was riding high then, and Buckley was probably annoyed by its champions’ triumphalist tone. Over the past four decades, things have changed: You can hardly walk around the block today without tripping over a critique of liberalism. There are critiques by wild-eyed Randians, free-market libertarians, neoclassical economists, neo-Burkean conservatives, Catholic integralists, critical race theorists, postmodernists, and, of course, Marxists.

A few figures stand out. Michael Sandel began as an academic critic of John Rawls with his 1982 Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, but with Democracy’s Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy and What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, he became America’s leading communitarian public intellectual. Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia, though based on an obvious fallacy that even Nozick later acknowledged, became the bible of adolescent libertarians of all ages. In The Sexual Contract, Carole Pateman criticized liberalism’s blind spots when it came to sex and gender, and in The Racial Contract, Charles Mills did the same for race. Christopher Lasch criticized liberalism from both the left and the right—he was a socialist in political economy, a conservative in culture. In 1991, just three years before his death, he produced an ambitious synthesis, The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics, that attempted to transcend both liberalism and conservatism.

Perhaps the most unexpectedly popular book to emerge from this flood of criticism was Alasdair MacIntyre’s 1981 After Virtue, which paired an Aristotelian critique of liberalism with a sweeping diagnosis of the ills of modernity. No one, including MacIntyre, could have expected that such a difficult and abstract book would be so influential. But otherwise fractious conservatives were near-unanimous in their reverence, while even most liberals and leftists (at least those who pay any attention to philosophy) accorded it a grudging respect. Among the American Catholic intelligentsia—a growing presence in American intellectual life—MacIntyre became a superstar. A professor emeritus at Notre Dame, he is still, at 93, a prominent philosopher and a powerful critic of liberalism.

Of course, liberalism has not lacked for defenders. One of them was the philosophical maverick Richard Rorty, who—in the intervals between deconstructing traditional metaphysics and epistemology and introducing English-language readers to Heidegger, Habermas, and Derrida—insisted that liberalism was far from unsalvageable and that, if anything, there should be a united front between leftists and liberals.

Two new books help frame the debate between Rorty and MacIntyre over liberalism. Alasdair MacIntyre: An Intellectual Biography, by the philosopher Émile Perreau-Saussine, is less an academic study than an essay on MacIntyrean themes. Though at times derivative and a little meandering, it’s engaging and accessible. And though it would have been interesting to learn something more about MacIntyre’s life—a little gossip adds relish to a biography—Perreau-Saussine does help clarify MacIntyre’s arguments, which can be knotty.

The second book, Rorty’s What Can We Hope For?, is a miscellaneous collection of political essays, published posthumously and unified only by Rorty’s humane passion for democracy and equality. The title echoes Kant’s “What can I hope?”—supposedly one of the essential questions philosophy exists to answer. The change from “I” to “we” is significant: Solidarity was the alpha and omega of Rorty’s political philosophy.

Alasdair MacIntyre has had an unusual trajectory. Born in Glasgow to a middle-class family, he grew up in London and attended the University of Manchester and, later, Oxford. He taught philosophy at Manchester, Leeds, and Oxford as well as numerous universities in the United States, and his academic honors are legion. He started out on the left: In the late 1950s, he joined E.P. Thompson’s legendary journal The New Reasoner, which along with Universities and Left Review became the New Left Review in 1960. He was a contributor to Out of Apathy, an influential manifesto edited by Thompson, and shared the latter’s disenchantment with both Stalinism and the Labour Party. But while Thompson settled on “socialist humanism” to describe his position, MacIntyre was moving in a different direction: not away from socialism but away from humanism. Across the Channel, a new generation of Parisian Marxists led by Althusser were also moving away from humanism and toward a structuralism that dispensed with human agency altogether. MacIntyre affirmed human agency, but only subject to tradition, community norms, and the will of God.

Throughout the 1960s, Marxism continued to fascinate MacIntyre as both an ethics and a philosophy of history. Stalinism, though hideous, did not discredit Marxism, he insisted: “The barbarous despotism of the collective Czardom which now reigns in Moscow can be taken to be as irrelevant to the question of the moral substance of Marxism as the life of a Borgia pope was to that of the moral substance of Christianity.” MacIntyre did eventually renounce Marxism, citing his dissatisfaction with Marx’s economic theory, but he retained much respect for its moral and intellectual seriousness. He concluded Marxism and Christianity (1968), his farewell to the New Left, with this qualified tribute:

Both liberals and Christians are too apt to forget that Marxism is the only systematic doctrine in the modern world that has been able to translate to any important degree the hopes men once expressed, and could not but express in religious terms, into the secular project of understanding societies and expressions of human possibility and history as a means of liberating the present from the burdens of the past, and so constructing the future. Liberalism by contrast simply abandons the virtue of hope. For liberals the future has become the present enlarged.

Liberalism is notoriously hard to define. For MacIntyre the political radical, liberals were those who, while professing concern for the less advantaged, have no intention of allowing them significantly greater social power. Judging from scattered hints in his later works, those egalitarian sympathies survived his rightward passage. When asked in 1996 what values he retained from his Marxist days, MacIntyre answered, “I would still like to see every rich person hanged from the nearest lamp post.” As his immersion in and commitment to premodern philosophy deepened, liberalism increasingly seemed at the root of everything wrong with the modern world: rationalism, secularism, individualism, and materialism. Bringing together his broad political and philosophical interests, After Virtue grew into a critique of an entire civilization.

For MacIntyre, the ascendance of liberalism is seen most starkly and ominously in the evolution of moral reasoning from Aristotle to the present. The classical tradition of Aristotle and Aquinas rested on a shared conception of cosmic or social order, derived from Aristotle’s metaphysics and Aquinas’s theology. Both thinkers—like most other human beings until a few hundred years ago—believed in a hierarchy of causes and of authorities culminating in a Supreme Being, i.e., God. But the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries undermined Aristotle’s metaphysics, and the Protestant Reformation introduced several new and heterodox theologies. In response, moral philosophers in the 18th and 19th centuries, including Hume, Smith, Diderot, Kant, Bentham, and Mill, tried to provide a rational but nonmetaphysical justification for morality. All of them, as far as MacIntyre is concerned, failed.

In the 20th century, morality was severed from rationality altogether, MacIntyre argues. The dominant form of moral theory became “emotivism,” the idea that evaluative statements are nothing more than expressions of preference. “X is good” simply means “I like X,” but disguised as a factual statement in order to manipulate the hearer. Emotivists, of course, see things differently: For them, “I like X” means “I like X. This is my overall standpoint, and this is how X fits in with it. Maybe if we talk awhile, you might come to like X too.” But MacIntyre would have none of it. Not imaginative rapprochement but “rational justification”—a rigorous deduction from the human telos—is the only honest way to conduct a moral argument. For MacIntyre, emotivism has made honest communication impossible; we can only inveigle one another.

The initial chapters of After Virtue set out the cultural consequences of this philosophical impasse. The absence of a cosmic order, with its associated telos, or purpose, condemns modern society to widespread anomie, superficiality, and narcissism. Modern culture, MacIntyre claims, has evolved several representative character types, notably the manager, the therapist, and the aesthete. All are profoundly manipulative. The first two deploy fictitious expertise to achieve goals foreign to the employee or patient; the third treats other persons as interesting sensations to be consumed. Modern moral life is a series of interminable quarrels and subtle conflicts of will that, for lack of a recognized moral authority, can never be resolved.

So what is this telos, which alone can redeem us? “Telos,” like “Being” and “dialectic,” is one of the most important and mischievous terms in the history of philosophy. It means, roughly, “essential nature,” “ultimate end,” “purpose,” “goal,” “fulfillment.” According to MacIntyre, moral philosophy is futile unless it starts from a correct understanding of our telos. Only with a grasp of our true end can we judge what our duties are and what virtues will enable us to fulfill them.

For MacIntyre, the human telos is what Aristotle called “rational happiness.” That sounds unobjectionable, even banal. But why is reason more essential to humans than, say, love or beauty? Why is it more universal than suffering or nobler than sympathy or courage? And what is an essential nature, anyway? Is it something every member of the species has? But then, isn’t a person who is temporarily or permanently deprived of reason still human?

The concept of telos, so central to MacIntyre’s philosophy, is fatally flawed. He insists that the end or purpose or goal of human life is objectively discoverable and is the same for every member of Homo sapiens. But our purposes are not a matter of fact; they are a matter of choice. We don’t discover our goals as a result of scientific or philosophical research; we work them out, with much imaginative and emotional effort. Human nature is compatible with any number of teloses.

There are other, better ways—our usual ways, actually—of reaching moral consensus than by metaphysical arguments about a telos. Two people arguing about whether something is good may offer factual reasons, in case one thinks the other is misinformed, or may suggest that the other’s reasoning is faulty. If that doesn’t produce agreement, they may canvass principles and values relevant to the dispute, and if they share one and can agree on how it applies to their disagreement, then they’ve reached agreement. In the most difficult cases, however, facts and logic will not suffice: The disputants will have to reveal to each other the whole scaffolding of beliefs, experiences, and hopes underlying their positions, each one trying to see the issue with new eyes—or, more precisely, with an enlarged moral imagination.

This is a better way to describe our moral life than as a search for “rational justification.” The supposedly interminable and irresolvable disagreements MacIntyre laments should instead be seen as conversations: long-lasting, society-wide discussions that sometimes (as with slavery) issue in violence, but at least as often issue in consensus and even moral progress. Our national conversations about Jim Crow and interracial marriage ended in the 1960s. Our conversation about the full humanity of women appeared to have ended in the 1980s and ’90s, though Republicans and evangelicals seem bent on reopening it. Our conversation about homosexuality ended happily; our conversation about legalizing marijuana—maybe also psychedelic drugs—looks promising. Our conversation about economic inequality and reviving the New Deal is unfortunately going nowhere—but there was a New Deal, which is perhaps grounds for hope. Our conversation about global warming, alas, has barely begun. MacIntyre’s insistence that modern pluralism makes moral and political progress impossible appears to be at odds with history. Sometimes our supposedly regrettable pluralism actually produces desirable outcomes.

Contra MacIntyre, moral judgments incorporate both reason and emotion. Hume formulated that truth provocatively, saying that reason is always the servant of emotion. It’s what pragmatists like James and Dewey meant by identifying the imagination as our key moral faculty; and it’s why Rorty wrote that we should expect moral progress chiefly from the work of novelists, journalists, ethnographers, and other purveyors of thick descriptions rather than from philosophy.

It is not only the dark side of modernity—the alleged manipulativeness, shallowness, aimlessness, and fragmentation—that MacIntyre deplores. Even liberalism’s finest achievements, he scoffs, are hollow. Natural rights and human rights have no more reality than witches and unicorns; documents such as the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are “fictions” with no objectively rational justification. But those great documents are not philosophical arguments, nor do they depend on these arguments. The Bill of Rights, for example, means: “Where this document’s writ runs, no one shall be prevented from voting or running for office or starting a newspaper or any other political activity merely because he is not a gentleman.” It does not mean: “There are wraith-like entities called rights subsisting in a shadowy metaphysical realm, from which we must deduce how best to organize our polity.”

And how do we today, who believe even less in those wraith-like entities than the Founding Fathers did, rationally justify our affirmation of these truths? Our justification is simply this: “We trust ordinary people, governed only by persuasion, with ultimate political power.” We could explain further, but it wouldn’t satisfy MacIntyre, for whom the absence of an abstract, nonhuman authority is a decisive defect in liberalism. Liberalism is purely negative, a matter of setting limits on authority. Liberal principles, MacIntyre writes, “set before us no ends to pursue, no ideal or vision to confer significance upon our political action. They never tell us what to do.” Maybe not, but they do tell us why we are no longer bound by those immemorial hierarchies that crushed so many people before the modern age. We can never be grateful enough for that.

In a foreword to Alasdair MacIntyre, the conservative French philosopher Pierre Manent approvingly notes MacIntyre’s 50-year-long “steady core of antiliberal anger” but then wryly observes that “the alternatives to liberalism have lost all credibility. Never has a principle organizing human association been more criticized while triumphant, or more triumphant while discredited.” MacIntyre would probably agree, even if not in the same jaunty tone. He too thinks liberalism will be around for a long time, though not because it’s resilient or the least bad alternative. Rather, liberalism is a blight, a toxic fog that has settled permanently on our cultural and political landscape: “What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the long dark ages which are already upon us.”

Richard Rorty was MacIntyre’s polar opposite in all ways except one: Both men liked and respected the other. Rorty was an anti-foundationalist, while MacIntyre grimly insists that philosophy without metaphysical foundations is the merest fiction. Rorty thought our paramount moral and political obligation was to reduce suffering and increase happiness; MacIntyre thinks it is to follow the path of virtue marked out by the traditions of our community, guided by that community’s view of the telos or purpose of human life. Rorty thought the Enlightenment, and the spirit of criticism it bequeathed, inaugurated a new and fortunate period in history, an epoch in which personal and social liberation are at least possible. MacIntyre thinks we will be lucky to survive that liberation. Rorty was fond of drawing a distinction between Enlightenment rationalism and Enlightenment liberalism. He agreed with MacIntyre that Enlightenment rationalism—the attempt to ground morality in reason—had failed. But he thought Enlightenment liberalism—egalitarianism, free speech, universal suffrage, the separation of church and state—had succeeded gloriously and was humanity’s best hope. MacIntyre holds out little hope, except in Catholicism, where he has come to rest.

Rorty seems to have felt that his philosophical celebrity entailed an obligation to comment on contemporary political issues, while MacIntyre seems to feel that his philosophical celebrity entails an obligation not to. As a result, Rorty was pretty much a model public intellectual in the 20 years before his death, while MacIntyre may as well have been writing from inside a monastery.

Born in 1931, Rorty grew up in a household defined by intellectual and political activity. His parents were journalists, teachers, activists, and friends of John Dewey, whose radical democratic egalitarianism the young Rorty imbibed early. Educated at the University of Chicago and Yale, he quickly ascended the academic ladder, achieving tenure at Princeton in his 30s. But after he had won all the profession’s glittering prizes and drunk deeply of imported theories from Paris, he left philosophy departments behind for positions at the University of Virginia and Stanford, where he could teach what he pleased.

Rorty was an ecumenical leftist; he called himself a socialist, a social democrat, or a liberal—whatever term he thought least likely to derail the conversation. Distressed by the schism between identity politics and class politics in the 1980s and ’90s, he wrote Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America, urging a united front between the old and new left, the reformist left and the academic left, and more broadly, between leftists and liberals. They needed to unite, he warned, to prevent the following all-too-likely scenario:

Members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers—themselves desperately afraid of being downsized—are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack. The non-suburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots.

With Trump’s election, this imagined scenario came true. The passage went viral, and Rorty was briefly, posthumously hailed as a prophet.

Rorty’s other political book, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, was perhaps his best. Embracing Proust, Nabokov, and Orwell, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida, Rorty argues that for political purposes, philosophical agreement with others is unimportant, while imaginative identification with them is all-important. For Rorty the pragmatist, there are no universally valid and binding moral or political truths. One cannot be argued into solidarity or any other virtue. There is no “human essence,” no “nature of things,” on which to ground a morality or a political order. The liberal theory of justice, he writes, is based on “nothing more profound than the historical facts which suggest that without the protection of something like the institutions of bourgeois liberal society, people will be less able to work out their private salvations, create their private self-images, reweave their webs of belief and desire.” This affirmation of solidarity based on the acceptance of contingency is the scaffolding of Rorty’s politics. It could hardly be farther from MacIntyre’s. Curiously, MacIntyre reviewed the book, not ill-humoredly, concluding with the puckish suggestion that “inside [these pages] there is perhaps a novel pleading to be let out.” I suspect Rorty took that as a compliment.

What Can We Hope For? rounds up a last selection of topical pieces from Rorty’s archive, following on the recently published, more strictly philosophical, Pragmatism as Anti-Authoritarianism. Each of the 18 pieces collected in What Can We Hope For? discusses an essay-sized topic—economic inequality (“Making the Rich Richer,” “Back to Class Politics”), globalization (“Can American Egalitarianism Survive in a Global Economy?”), cultural politics (“Demonizing the Academy”), international affairs (“The Unpredictable American Empire,” “Half a Million Blue Helmets?”)—humanely, incisively, and elegantly.

Perhaps the most memorable is “Looking Backwards From the Year 2096,” a review of the 21st century by a nameless speaker. Increasing misery and resentment gave rise to increasingly uncontrollable civil strife, this person tells us, resulting in a military dictatorship by the mid-century. Eventually the Democratic Vistas Party restored civilian rule, but everyone was much chastened and American exceptionalism much weakened. “Compared with the Americans of a hundred years ago [i.e., 1996], we are citizens of an isolationist, unambitious, middle-grade nation.” The speaker concludes that “everything depends on keeping our fragile sense of American fraternity intact.” The piece’s allusions to Whitman’s Democratic Vistas and Bellamy’s Looking Backward underline this moral.

In this last book, as in all his writings, Rorty had two purposes: first, to show how little traditional philosophy mattered; and second, to show how little that fact mattered—how little, that is, our moral life rests on deductions from principles and how much, instead, on sympathy, solidarity, and moral imagination. Shelley said as much two centuries ago in “A Defense of Poetry”:

A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination.

The imagination—not moral philosophy, not conformity with the telos, but the capacity to be moved by the sufferings of others. It’s a surprisingly simple message from so sophisticated a philosopher as Rorty. But to judge by the state of the world, it’s not a superfluous one.

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